By Any Other Name: A Life Well Lived

The devastating epidemic that claimed the lives of 100,000,000 people globally and at least 600,000 in the United States caused the death of her young father, the family support and breadwinner when she was only 3 years old.  She was sent to live with her grandparents. Her sister died when she was about 5, from what was thought to be a heart condition, although diagnostics were limited then.  Children often died and the cause was a sad guess. The separation from her mother and two other sisters was emotionally difficult for her, but under the financial circumstances in the family and nationally, her mother knew it was her best opportunity.  Her grandparents had a small grocery store so no matter how limited their income was there was always nutritious food, for her, her family and the local community, her grandparents often taking a parrot, a zither, a paper IOU as payment from neighbors for their groceries.

She was told at some point in her adolescence that she might not be able to have children, and yet she married  and had three daughters.  She had a heart attack.  There was a diagnosis of breast cancer, a breast removed, chemotherapy.  A broken hip.  A thyroid condition.  Upper respiratory infections.  The long slow decline of Alzheimers.

My mother, Rose, died last week at the age of 96.  Despite the health and financial challenges, she thrived for most of those 96 years.  Last August my youngest daughter, Alex, and I visited her at the nursing home she lived in for about 5 years.  She was bright and happy to see us although at some point during the last few years I had realized that she might not really remember my name or which one of the daughters I was.  But she was all smiles and hugs that day, and she loved that we were there with her.  She particularly loved the granddaughters.  Once about 4 years ago, she was rushed to the hospital barely conscious.  My daughter Kierra and I met my sister in the emergency room and standing at her bedside we all believed that my mother was about to die.  Concerned that she might, even in that state, be thirsty, Kierra dripped some juice from a straw onto her lips.  She licked her lips and as the juice ran into her mouth she swallowed.  Her eyelids fluttered open and she smiled at Kierra.  “What are you all doing here, Sweetheart?” she asked.

Fortunate to have had her for so long and to have been able to spend her last two days of life with her, I am still grieving, but I also can’t help but wonder what it was that contributed to her long life.  My father died in 2001 at the age of 86 from a heart attack.  Most of my parents’ friends have died.

When I think about the generally accepted contributors to health, exercise, good nutrition, and keeping mentally active, I wonder how these affected my mother’s life.  She was always active gardening, cleaning, taking us kids to the beach, helping at the church, but she never went to a gym, never ran, never wore spandex.  Even at the beach she wasn’t a swimmer.  She and my father though would take walks around the neighborhood, holding hands.  And nutrition, well, she was an amazing cook and in the summer months was always gathering fresh fruits and veggies and then canning and freezing them to get us through the winter with those summer vitamins.  But, there was lots of meat (red and otherwise) in our diets:  Sunday roast beef, pork and dumplings and sauerkraut, fried chicken, bacon and eggs for breakfasts.  I remember that when I was in elementary school, the other little girls had these darling little sandwiches made of cream cheese, and peanut butter and jelly, maybe tuna salad, cute sandwiches with the crusts cut off.  I however, would remove from my lunch box, big hunks of homemade bread with a fried veal cutlet or slabs of leftover Sunday roast beef.  And by the way cutting off crust was considered totally wasteful and my parents subscribed to the philosophy that  eating “crusts makes you pretty.”  And of course there were not only the sandwiches…..my lunch box consistently contained a big slice of homemade lemon cake (with frosting) or apple strudel or a poppy seed pastry or chocolate chip cookies.  Well into my parents’ late 80’s, my mother was known as the “Cookie Lady” in their neighborhood because rather than giving kids’ candy bars for Halloween, she baked cookies that she and my father put in little baggies with ribbons to give out to the costumed callers.  They were renowned at their church for making literally hundreds of donuts (fried in hot oil of course!) for the Fastnacht celebrations every year the night before Ash Wednesday.  For all of this, neither of my parents were ever overweight, nor are or were any of their off-spring.

So exercise and nutrition in my mother’s life were not exactly by the public health book.  Keeping mentally active was.  When I was in high school, my mother, who was a very good student in high school but never went to (as if it would ever even have been thought of) college, became the assistant for a well-known sociologist in Stony Brook.  She took over his academic life as a gentle whirlwind, organizing his books, redeeming royalty checks that were long expired, editing his manuscripts, negotiating with publishers and handling all of his correspondence and travel plans.  Long after Dr. Nelson died in his sleep on a train in Italy, my mother continued to read academic articles and edited my sister’s doctoral dissertation and my masters thesis.  But that wasn’t all.  She sewed.  No, she didn’t just sew, she was the mastermind of three daughters’ and her own wardrobes.  Months before Easter Sunday, we would all make a pilgrimage to various fabric stores where we would study pattern books for the latest fashions, hunt through bolts and bolts of fabrics, and ferret out the best notions:  little fabric frogs, buttons, lacey trims.  And then over weeks my mother would work her magic with pins and those thin paper patterns and hours and hours at the sewing machine.  And those, long  “hold still!!!!” sessions of her pinning up the hems and adjusting waistlines, shoulder seams and zippers.  She knit us sweaters and scarves and  crocheted a dress for me that I still have.  She made millions of little craft items and baby sweaters and booties, and cloth dolls for church fairs.  When the grandchildren she adored came to visit she taught them how to make little Christmas mice, pot holders and seashell jewelry.  She always had the best craft supplies. My daughter Kristin loved those little Grandma mice.

So what else?  Certainly the literature supports the association of a long stable relationship with health.  Rose and Charlie were together in a loving mutually supportive marriage for almost 70 years.  My mother had a very strong network of family support, neighbors and church members:  a social support being a strong indicator of health.  My father worked for Grumman Aircraft and so we all had good healthcare benefits:  I actually remember as a child when my parents thought I might have polio, the doctor coming to our house with his little black bag.

And then there was my parents’ consumption of coffee, the health benefits now well documented.  From the Harvard Review: In 2011, researchers reported findings that coffee drinking is associated with a lower risk of depression among women, a lower risk of lethal prostate cancer among men, and a lower risk of stroke among men and women. Go back a little further, and you’ll come across reports of possible (it’s not a done deal) protective effects against everything from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes to some types of cancer http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/coffee_health_benefits

And this in the Daily Beast:  A new study suggests that drinking coffee significantly reduces our skin-cancer risk. There’s a raft of other research that’s piling up evidence that regular cups of joe—six-ounce servings packed with antioxidants, polyphenols, and other health-boosting chemicals—can prevent everything from diabetes to depression to cirrhosis of the liver to stroke. (Intracranial aneurysms, not so much.) Scared of superbugs? Pour yourself another cup. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/28/coffee-health-benefits-how-coffee-might-save-your-life.html

My parents didn’t know any of this and perhaps all the coffee health benefits were outweighed by my mother’s yummy buttery pastries and cookies and cakes that went along with the caffeine and antioxidants, but I do believe that the two of them sharing coffee at breakfast, the mid morning coffee, coffee with lunch, the mid afternoon coffee break, coffee after dinner and the late evening coffee (usually accompanied by ice cream,) contributed to my mother’s long and happy life.  Maybe it was the conversations they had while they were drinking coffee or the plans they would make or the hand holding that went along with the coffee.

My mother was not a public health professional, she wasn’t a nurse or a doctor although I do truly believe that she saved my life several times when I was a child by making me yum yum, a combination of hot milk, honey and butter, in the middle of the night.  She wasn’t a great philanthropist with a foundation that put her name on some medical center building or library, and she wasn’t the author of any great books.  Her long loving life is however a testimony to a life well-lived and perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn about our own health and improving the quality of life in the world:  Love the people around you.  Be passionate about everything you do, especially those the small acts of kindness.  Make the world more beautiful in your own unique way.  Love children, grow roses, knit a scarf, bake cookies, smile at strangers, hold a hand, share a cup of coffee, change the world.


Rose’s Czech Peach Dumplings

This recipe makes 8 dumplings

In a glass measure, pour 1/2 cup milk. Add 2 large eggs and whisk together to blend.

In a large mixing bowl, measure 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir to mix. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the milk and egg mixture. Use a wooden spoon to mix well. Dough will begin to get stiff. If it is very sticky, add a little more flour. The dough should not be sticky, but should still be soft enough to roll into a sheet.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Roll out one piece at a time into a thin sheet and cut (with scissors) into 4 square pieces. Place a half of a peeled, pitted peach on each piece of dough, and add a small piece of butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.  Fold in the corners of the dough to cover the peach half.  Be sure the peach is sealed well in the dough. Repeat with the other piece of dough.  Sprinkle some flour on a clean surface. Set the peach dumplings on the flour and cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel. Bring a large covered pot of water to a boil.  When water is boiling hard, gently drop the dumplings into the pot. Put the cover on the pot. Set the timer for 20 minutes. Do not take the cover off the pot until the timer rings. Transfer each dumpling to a large dinner plate. Prepare to eat by cutting into small pieces. Pour melted butter over the dumpling. Sprinkle with more sugar and cinnamon. Eat. Enjoy!!!

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50 Shades of Designer Bags

My children could tell you just how nerdy I am since they have experienced my crazy obsession with their school projects (“Oh, no, not foam core again, Mommy!”) and my over-preparedness for classes I have taken (at least half the text book read and HIGHLIGHTED before the semester started).  My  friends, fortunately for me, welcomed me back after I had spent months in the cocoon of writing my MPH thesis. My reading material tends to be the daily New York Times, The New Yorker and the American Journal of Public Health. (I actually have a once a week date night with The New Yorker; I have found it some mornings stuck to my face.)  I have been known (or hopefully unknown) to steal copies of Journal of the American Medical Association from my doctor’s office.  The most recent book I read is Classified Woman by Sibel Edmunds.  Although I do have to confess to having read……no actually I am going to take the 5th on the 50 Shades books.   When I fly I do totally indulge in something like Vogue or Glamour, but that is in response to my suppressed fear of flying and is for purely medicinal purposes.  So when 4 times a year The New York Times has a fashion supplement I feel completely justified in wallowing through those pages of luscious, colorful, crazy expensive designer clothes and accessories because after all, it’s The New York Times.  The Fall 2012 issue arrived last weekend.  I continue to wallow.

It seems that darling little designer clutch bags are very much in style for the Fall.  There’s a page of them in yummy colors and another section called Grab Bags:  Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, with no apparent apologies to Kenny Rogers.   Somehow I did not fashion forecast well when I bought that big red Prada knock off in Hong Kong for $15.  These little bags are of course very pricey.  They are designed by Celine ($2,100,) Phillip Lim ($625,) Victoria Beckham ($650,) Marc Jacobs ($550,) and Coach (only $148,) among others.  My guess is they are just big enough for a credit card, a lipstick, a cell phone and a couple of condoms…maybe a box of Tic Tacs.   Just the basics for survival at some soignée soirée.

Of course I know what little bags can carry and the impact on health outcomes they can have because I spent about two years of my life studying the contents of little bags about 6” by 4”.  These darling little bags, not so pricey, not so pretty, carry things like a razor blade, string, a piece of soap, a sheet of black plastic: not really contents for a fun evening out, but pretty useful if you are going to have a baby at home in a rural region of Nepal or India or Uganda or Ghana or Rwanda or Afghanistan. At least 350,000 women a year die in childbirth internationally.   One of the leading causes of death is infection which can result from unsanitary delivery conditions.  So these little bags of useful items, called birthing kits, have been developed by several organizations including Zonta International, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. More than a million of these kits are distributed annually, especially in developing countries where maternal deaths are the highest in the world.

The kits have been designed by medical providers and organizations.   They are standardized and able to be mass produced, inexpensive and extremely compact.  Dr. Joy O’Hazy who works with Doctors Without Borders and Zonta told me that, “While quantifiable data is difficult to acquire what we have received is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from our partners about reduced infections and deaths in places like Kenya and Afghanistan.”  (Joy by the way is an amazing person and I have been fortunate to be able to stay in touch with her since completing my thesis.  “Hello, Joy!!!!”)

So here’s the thing I just can’t stop wondering about.  We know that birthing kits save lives, but to save lives they not only have to be available, they have to be used.  If rather than having a pretty little clutch bag, the only thing you could carry your evening supplies for a party in was a plain plastic baggie would want to do that or would you just leave your stuff home? Do you want someone to pick out that plastic bag for you or would you want to shop for something you like or you feel expresses who you are?  Do these seem like silly questions in relation to clean birthing supplies?  I don’t think so.

Social design is based on the understanding that for products to be effective they must include user end participation in the design, i.e., if you are going to design something ask the people who are going to use it to be involved with the design of that product.  How do I know this? I have a brilliant neighbor named Dan Formosa, Ph.D., who is one of the founders of Smart Design, and he told me about social design and he helped me with my thesis.  So I know this is true.  For birthing kits to be truly effective in saving the lives of women and babies, the design of the kits has to include the women who will use them.  They need to be social designer bags.  Not mass produced but in at least 50 shades.   The bags that women use in Uganda need to be Ugandan.  The bags that women use in Afghanistan need to be Afghan.  The bags that women use in Nepal need to be Nepali.  Not only is this social design, it is beautiful design.  All of these countries have wonderful traditional designs, colorful crafts, amazing creativity.

So here’s the challenge for designers.  Design beautiful, inexpensive, small birthing kits that can be distributed and used and can save lives.  You can include women from their countries, you can use some of the proceeds from your $600 pouches, you can engage the design community in saving women’s lives.  You can make preventing maternal mortality sexy and cool.  That’s what designers do.

Here are some direct challenges:

Hey, Prabal Gurung, do it for Nepalese women.

Mimi Plange, for women in Ghana.

Georgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, Channel, Estee Lauder, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Hermes, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Tod’s, Salvatore Ferragamo,  Celine, MaxMara, Michael Kors, Balenciaga, Missioni, Chloe………pick a country and get to know the women there.  And design with them.

And Kenneth Cole, how about some really cool compelling billboards.  You are so very clever.

Perhaps Tyler Brule, the editor of the hip international travel, design, political magazine Monocle would take on the coordination.

So I guess it is just my inherent nerdiness that got me from those darling little clutch bags to preventing maternal deaths.  Or maybe it was the women I met in Nepal and India and Brazil and my friend David in Uganda and Joy O’Hazy , who constantly inspire me and make me think, actually believe, that “it only seems impossible until it is done.”

PS…Hey, Prada, so sorry about buying the knock off.  I promise never to do it again.